Escaping the Noise

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I’m sitting in the midday sun whilst the soporific chimes of Wanderwelle mingle with the sounds of wood-pigeons and long grass whispering in the breeze. A brief interlude of shimmering chords draws me out of my daze, and I’m once more reminded that there’s more to ambient music than initially meets the ear.  From the drippy, luscious synths of Harold Budd to the languorous soundscapes of Stars of the Lid; from the tranquil jazz-tinged folk of Penguin Café Orchestra to the soft cosmic chug of Tangerine Dream, ambient refuses to be characterised by a singular acoustic pallet and derives inspiration from any number of musical styles.  The genre is characterised by its emphasis on atmosphere over structure, on tone over rhythm, but this rather broad definition offers immense space for interpretation. To attempt to draw the lines between what is ambient and what isn’t would be a long and pointless exercise, but listening and searching for value within it is a worthy and calming pursuit.

The history of ambient, much like the form itself, has long been floating along in the background behind more perceptible developments in modern music.  Classical avant-garde composers of the late 19th century such as Erik Satie and Claude Debussy did much to consolidate the idea of ‘ambience’: sounds which co-exist with their environment without intruding upon it, subverting the structural and tonal rules predicating almost all other existing forms of music.  These rules were dealt a further blow with the arrival of experimentalists such as John Cage whose infamous composition ‘4’33″‘, on instructing performers to deliberately not play their instruments, challenges the listener to consider the environmental ambience they experience as a form of musical expression.  As sounds from overseas and new electronic instruments were introduced to western composers throughout the 60’s, ambient evolved in tandem with popular music.  Where the Beatles made waves with their entirely new brand of studio-recorded pop, pioneers of art rock and Krautrock emulated the group’s modern sensibility and used it to explore other avenues, resulting in longer, more improvised records with little reliance on vocals.  Alongside the dominating presence of the synthesizer came Brian Eno’s conception of ambient music as “an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint… to induce calm and a space to think”, an approach distinguished on his albums Discreet Music and Music for Airports.  Although many subsequent artists have challenged Eno’s description, ambient cemented its relevance throughout the next few decades with seminal albums such as Pauline Oliveros’ snaking Accordion and Voice, The KLF’s epic acoustic Gulf Coast journey Chillout, and Aphex Twin’s much extolled Selected Ambient Works.

Without a steady kick drum to shepherd you from A to B or a driving melodic hook to latch onto, ambient music can seem aloof, uninviting and, let’s face it, tedious.  In an age where we consume more music than ever before, it is short, sharp and sharable tracks which win big. Ambient music often fails to deliver the type of instantaneous pleasure we derive from these tunes, but offers a different, more subtle reward. Journalist Colin Joyce asserts that “ambient music, as a form, is all about anticipation; the gradual shifts between notes and slowly unfolding textures mean it is a genre of delayed gratification”; it keeps a low profile in a saturated music industry which has beaten our collective attention span to within an inch of its life. 

And why wouldn’t it? Ambient, by its very nature, is easy to dismiss; it’s often rebuffed as derivative or insubstantial.  As music production becomes easier, cheaper, and more ubiquitous, ambient is among the genres most flagrantly commodified.  A couple of years ago, Spotify was accused of fabricating artists on playlists with names like “Deep Focus” and “Ambient Relaxation” – suspicions were piqued by a notable lack of online presence for musicians harvesting tens of millions of hits. Theoretically, Spotify didn’t control the rights for these songs but instead commissioned composers to write specifically for these playlists for a fraction of royalties they’d have paid to established labels.  It could be argued that both Spotify and its listeners are getting what they want in this situation, but this apparent corporatisation of ‘mood music’ has bleak implications for by neglecting artists who have forged careers within the genre, it is stripped of its personality, reduced to a series of faceless, conveniently packaged audio nuggets, whilst attention is diverted from independent labels such as Erased Tapes and Kranky offering real innovation and authenticity.

Tahoe: A 2018 release on Kranky. Produced by Fred Welton Warmsley III under the moniker Dedekind Cut (“Dead-da-ken Cut”)

Yet where Joyce presents a more singular attitude towards the genre, Eno’s liner notes for his 1978 album ‘Music for Airports’ emphasise a more varied approach:

Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.

Brian Eno

The concept of multiple states of listening is perhaps pertinent now more than ever.  Just as we are witnessing a widening in the polarisation of political and social discourse where complex subjects are reduced to their dichotomous barebones, a song is often judged ‘good’ or ‘bad’ almost immediately. Devoid of urgency, however, ambient presents you with a choice of cerebral gears with which you can engage with the sounds. In being ignorable, ambient is accepting and perhaps even encouraging of indifference.  As the world appears to throw up issues each more frightening, devastating and divisive than the last, the pressure to abandon apathy and fight for your ideological corner increases. There is comfort in plugging into music which doesn’t demand binary opinion, tuning out the background hum of existence, and escaping to a liminal headspace for a moment or two.

Ambient has undergone a renaissance in recent years and nowhere more so than in dance music circles, with festivals such as Dekmantel, Latitude and Farr dedicating entire stages for spaced-out, mellow jams to stem the adrenaline.  There are a number of reasons these stages might be on the rise, and my inner optimist hopes that festival-goers are demanding more exploratory and wide-ranging line-ups. Unfortunately my more cynical side also senses that it might be to keep the party going for as long as possible, ensuring a flow of money to the bar.  Another possibility is that festivals now cater for a generation who are increasingly concerned with well-being and mental health, and that the trend in meditative music is in response to this.  New York multi-instrumentalist Laraaji has been vocal on the psychological benefits of ambient, stating that it provides “a vertical escape, even if it’s temporary, without feeling like you’re abandoning your responsibilities as a planetary being.”  Whether revellers favour this connection or not, presenting ambient outside its natural home-listening habitat as a collective experience gives it a rare and comforting social dimension which is great exposure for a genre hemmed in by its own unobtrusiveness.

Though these stages explicitly shun fast tempos and heavy beats, ambient doesn’t always sit at the periphery of dance music.  The versatility of the genre means that it can reside harmoniously alongside its club-ready counterparts and establish a tonal framework on which to build or develop a set.  Anticipation is key in both the slowly evolving mood of ambient music and the dynamic build-and-release of a four-to-the-floor mix; combining the two can add a depth and personality to a set which more than justifies the exclusion of a banger or two.  Beatless dance music – that which omits the percussive elements of club music but retains much of its rhythm and energy whilst incorporating ambient-esque textures and fluidity – is increasingly finding its way onto dancefloors and into mixes with the help of adventurous DJs.  Some examples spring to mind immediately: Objekt’s “no-kick rollers” mix for RA is as danceable as it is hypnotic, Priori treads the indistinct line between cosmic-house and ambient with sublime delicacy and Avalon Emerson can throw a beatless track over a huge rolling bass at peak time to compelling effect.  This is ambient at its most elusive, lapping at the shores of other genres and interrogating the ‘calm-inducing’ ideology on which it is underpinned. While not an inherently ‘exciting’ genre, its capacity for reinvention and reframing both within its own loose parameters and its relationship to other genres bestows ambient with an inimitable freshness.

Considered individually, however, I believe that the best ambient music offers a less salient but more personal reward than its higher-energy counterparts: a deeper emotional involvement which requires a little more time to cultivate.  Having amassed a formidable number of hours digging for music that excites and intrigues me over the past few years, the records which have embedded themselves most permanently in my affections are almost exclusively softly-spoken and imperceptibly moving. These are tracks which worm their way to the forefront of your mind over multiple listens, gently barbing a mood into your subconscious that draws you back, each time immersing you further in the textures and subtleties which you don’t register first time. With every listen, you experience a discrete conflation of internal and external perception which can instil both with new meaning. The mode and environment in which ambient is consumed become part of its narrative.  The record which has had the most profound impact on me was one I first heard when drifting off the night before I started finals; beautiful though it is, I can’t help but wonder if I’d value it as highly without this charged contextual frame.  The unique intimacy reserved for ambient music is perhaps best summated by Lawrence English in a wonderful deep-dive into the genre last year: ambient music is the “music of lived moments”.

Max’s sleep aid for finals: Grafts Kara-Lis Coverdale (2017)